Raquel Bitton

THEATRE CRITICS ARE A NOTORIOUSLY ROUGH bunch. Howard Reich of the Chicago Tribune, on the other hand, recently spent ink praising, of all things, Raquel Bitton’s broken microphone.A show at Chicago’s Orchestra Hall was halted last August after Bitton’s mic stopped working. While stagehands tracked down the problem, the singer hopped into the orchestra pit, talking to some musicians, and hugging and kissing others.

When an official tried to escort Bitton offstage, she proclaimed, “I’m not going anywhere. I’m staying right here.” It earned the singer her first ovation of the evening.

Bitton debuted her tour of Edith Piaf…Her Story, Her Songs last January at a sold-out Carnegie Hall. Her performance of the legendary French singer’s repertoire has commanded high theatrical ticket prices since that date.

“I can summarize all of it in one [phrase]: It’s a cry of the heart,” the Marrakech-born French chanteuse told POLLSTAR. She was effusive, crafting streaming sentences with a warm, friendly accent. “It is songs that reflect you and me and every person, and it talks about joy, sadness, hope, sorrow. People see themselves instantly in that repertoire, and my faith and my belief in it was so strong that instead of beginning backwards singing in theatres [to present the show] and end up in Carnegie Hall I began at Carnegie Hall.”

That’s not to say Bitton stepped into the legendary venue from a side entrance or that she never spent time focusing on Piaf. The Kennedy Center had hosted Bitton already, as had San Francisco’s Davies Symphony Hall, and countless jazz clubs and theatres over a span of 20 years. The singer performed at age 11 in the same club where the movie “Casablanca” was filmed, and she learned of Piaf at an early age.

But she decided, after having a choice of venues to begin her tour, to start at the top. It was “make or break,” but she felt her passion would prove it to be the right decision. It was.

“It is quite frightening,” she said. “It isn’t the magnitude of the place itself; it is the fact that everybody knows who has stepped in there before you. But I will tell you this much: Something wonderful happened to me. I realized quickly, ‘Raquel, let the place come to you. Don’t go to the place.’ And I just stood there and I remembered why I was there: Because I love my songs, I love the audience, I have something to share, and I just let the music be. And then it became a really friendly place.”

Friendly, indeed; husband and manager Gerald Prolman told POLLSTAR that a hall official informed him Bitton’s concert was one of the top three performances of the past 20 years. Bitton will return to Carnegie in 2002 accompanied by the New York Pops.

She performs 24 Piaf songs in the two-hour performance, intertwined with stories about the waif’s exciting and tragic life, the songs and their composers. For return engagements, approximately 12-18 months later, she offers two other presentations highlighting romantic music from the ’30s and ’40s. Orchestrator Bob Holloway, who has worked with Bitton on five CDs, writes arrangements for 65- or 100-piece orchestras, depending on her presentations.

Although the singer speaks of jazz artists such as Sidney Bechet, the expatriate 1920s clarinet player, and about early jazz in general, she is indelibly tied to the “little sparrow.” Henri Contet, composer of more than 40 Piaf tunes, gave Bitton his full endorsement for the material, as has composer Paul Misraki.

“Omara Portuondo from Buena Vista Social Club, Cassandra Wilson … whoever is hot today, they all want to be Edith Piaf,” she said. “I think that it is because they all share one thing in common the passion in the song. This is what I’ve been very lucky about, that I distanced myself from being her. I am not her, but I have perfected something tremendous which is to be the spokesperson for the repertoire that had been written over 50 years ago and has been all but forgotten.”

Raquel Bitton

William Morris Agency’s Dick Alen, who is also responsible agent for Aretha Franklin and Tom Jones, picked up Bitton as a client last year. Alen told POLLSTAR he signed the singer because of her uniqueness.

“In today’s world, there’s nothing new for adults to hear,” he said. “The MOR (Middle Of the Road) acts that are out there have been around for a long, long time. … She’s looking for settled adults who have the money to spend if they think they’re going to be entertained. She’s bringing something new to them at a time when most of what they’re seeing has been around for decades.”

Bitton’s family migrated to San Francisco from Casablanca when she was 11 and she eventually moved north of the bay to San Rafael. The city was too hectic for her, she said, although she can still be sighted trying out new material at Oakland’s famous jazz club, Yoshi’s at Jack London Square.

She believes her background in smoky clubs helps give performances at 3,000-capacity venues an intimate atmosphere. It has been verified by reviewers who write of audiences wiping tears from their eyes as they leave the theatres.

“Even if I sing in a language they don’t understand, they feel it, they cry and they laugh. The language suddenly transcends all,” she said. “I have so much in my heart. I am just so happy that I am able to communicate it through song.”